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February 11, 2005

Notes from My Trip to Buenos Aires


BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA--As I mentioned last week, I am in South America visiting my daughter and her husband’s family in Montevideo, Uruguay.  They wanted my wife and I to see Buenos Aires on the way because they have family there, and because it is such a large and dynamic city.  The city of Buenos Aires is about as big as all of Uruguay. 


After settling in at the hotel we started our tour of the city, spending the evening on the rejuvenated waterfront (Puerto Madero) followed by a meal at a good restaurant.  The city has many beautiful parks, buildings, and numerous statues of former heroes.  The city has survived a major crisis of confidence, since a few years ago when  they had a major financial crisis which closed the banks, and the people took to the streets.  In that period they had five different presidents within a space of two weeks.  International debts were defaulted and the peso lost half of its value overnight.  The main administrative building is still surrounded by three-metre barricades and there are still protests. Also protesting crimes of the past, in front of this same building are women, known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who march in memory of the thousands of disappeared during the dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. 


Canadian money goes along way in Buenos Aires on any purchase, and there is a wide range of excellent hotels, restaurants and stores to suit any taste.  There are over 30,000 taxis that will run you around for prices cheaper than bus fair at home. Some streets are quite narrow, while the Avenida de Julio is sixteen  lanes wide, the widest in the world.  There is also a contrast of living with a lot of poverty, but a considerable middle and upper class who live an energetic and enthusiastic life, especially the thousands who have steady incomes now that things are beginning to stabilize.


Early History


Spain had established itself in South America in 1536 when the Portuguese became a presence and Spain sent Pedro de Mendoza and 2000 men to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata (River) and established a community there on a hill.  They got along well with the native people, but famine and disease created conflict and the settlement died. 


In 1580 another more sophisticated Spanish settlement was established with checkerboard streets and a protective barricade.  The Plaza de Mayo is the site of this early community.  The economy and the city grew.  The land was ideal for cattle with the primary export of hides, much like Canada with its beaver pelts.  The British made a failed forty-six day attempt to capture the city in 1806. In 1816 Argentina declared independence from Spain and became the Argentine Republic.  Immigration was encouraged and by 1880 there were 300,000 people and by 1914, over a million.  Buenos Aires now has three million people, and there are eleven million Argentineans elsewhere in the country. 


Unique doorways and iron-work on Buenos Aires streets. D. Mackey photo.


Things to See and Do


I mentioned the waterfront with its open spaces, restaurants and restored buildings above.  A beautiful new footbridge called “The Bridge of the Women” with a sweeping arc symbolic of the famous tango dance.  The tango is becoming popular again, especially with tourists, with sold out shows, dance classes and dancing in the street.  The La Boca quarter with its colourful old warehouses and houses that are now art galleries and restaurants is a great place to visit for food and entertainment.


The Cathedral


We spent an interesting afternoon looking at several sites around the Plaza de Mayo.  The huge cathedral was built in 1745, modified in 1821 and 1886, and we walked around craftsmen working on mosaic repairs on the floors.  There are twelve lateral naves in the church, including the mausoleum of General San Martin “the Father of the Nation,” with two soldiers in full uniform on guard. 


The Cabildo


The original colonial government building that was built in the 1700s was somewhat diminished in size to allow for wider roads, was restored in 1939 and is a historical gem. 


The Pink House (the Argentine equivalent to the White House) with barriers for protection from protesters. D. Mackey photo.


The Pink House


The huge executive offices of the government, with the barriers mentioned above, was painted pink at one time and stands out.  It has a recently excavated underground escape route that has been used in several times of crises.  Near the buildings mentioned above there is a huge park with a giant statue of Christopher Columbus looking out to sea. 


The Café Tortoni


My favourite spot was the nearby cafe Tortoni which is a long narrow establishment in old wood, filled with paintings and sculptures and other articles for the past.  Known for its connection to tango culture, it has been a meeting place for intellectuals, musicians and politicians for generations, including Jorge Borges and Frederico Garcia Lorca. 



Mannequins of former personalities at the Café Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo. D. Mackey photo.


The Recoleta District


Another one of the eighteen walks my guidebook recommends is the Recoleta. It features dozens of outside craft booths, old buildings and a fascinating old cemetery with dozens of elite family mausoleums. A crowd at one turned out to be the resting place of the famous Eva Peron, much-loved wife of a former president.


One of Buenos Aires’ giant old gum trees.  D. Mackey photo.




I saw the largest tree I have ever seen at the edge of the Recoleta district: the trunk had to be about 10 feet wide, and the branches extended 150-200 feet and were the size of full-grown trees and supported by posts to keep them from breaking. Some of these branches extended over the courtyard of the well-known La Biela restaurant, were we had lunch. 


There were dozens of museums, galleries, parks, a zoo and other sites that required more time.  With five days in the city, allowing for several visits to relatives and friends, we barely scratched the surface before heading across the Rio de la Plata by boat to Montevideo, to a smaller but equally fascinating city with a long history.  More about Montevideo next week.  For more on Buenos Aires log on to www.bue.gov.ar

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